Chasing the Sun Through Namibia

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South from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, then inland. Cutting through and skirting around the Namib-Naukluft National Park and setting down for the night in Sesriem.

Up again in the early hours. You would resign if your boss made you set off so early and so often for work as needs must when travelling in Africa. Yet you accept it, if not gladly then with only muted grumbling. Most days. Getting up in what ought to be the middle of the night, dismantling and packing the tent in the dark, shaving in cold water sinks under the supervision of an oversized spider. They are, as Hemingway put it in The Green Hills of Africa, “the discomforts that you paid to make it real”.

A peachy glow at the horizon, a penumbra of blue hint at sunrise as you head out towards the dune, 45 kilometres from Sesriem Gate.

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Image: Shutterstock

It is a Thing To Do in Namibia. You have seen the pictures in the agents’ windows. The sky a cobalt blue which seems to have been created in Photoshop but is just how it is there, on a clear day. Dune 45 bifurcated by its crest. One side, in the sun, a searing orange: the other, in the shade, oil black. There is usually a Land Cruiser in the shot, at the base of dune, to show scale.

There are always Land Cruisers in the early morning, as every traveller who passes through stops off at the dune to climb the ridge and sit at the top and watch the sun come up.

It is 170 metres to the top, or 560 feet. Some of the travellers in front find it hard going, or their hearts are not really in it. They slow the line right down. It is a frustrating stop-start procession to the top.

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Image: Shutterstock

There is an odd light this morning. The sky is a lavender colour and the sporadic trees have a painterly quality.  You can tell that the sunrise will not be spectacular, but it is only polite to stay and watch it. There is a hold up again as people begin to pick their way to ground level, so you skip the queue and run straight down the side of the dune.

From there onto Deadvlei. A drive and a walk across the sand. Around the time of the first Millennium of the Common Era, floodwaters from the Tsauchab River carved out a hollow which became a marsh, where camel thorn trees took root. Two centuries later, the droughts came and the marsh dried up and dunes rose around the clay pit blocking the path of the water for evermore.

The trees died and the sun scorched their skeletons and so thoroughly drained them of moisture they cannot decompose.

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It is a starkly beautiful landscape, surreal as a Dali painting. You walk across the creamy clay, baked and tessellated by the sun. It contrasts with the rusty orange of the dunes around it. Dotted about are the remains of the trees which died in what we call the Middle Ages. You wander among them, give one an exploratory tap.

Later you head back to Sesriem, then push on south to Fish River Canyon. It is the next biggest in the world after the Grand Canyon. Less than a third as deep and half as long as long, but it has been around for 500 million years longer and, to put that into some kind of perspective it is about 250 million years since the first dinosaur, about 60 since the last.

You wander round the lip, gaze over the folds and contours of the rock and try to process the unfathomable scale. You stand at the edge and look down and, as often, someone takes it as a challenge. They balance on their hands and dangle their legs over the chasm. But you were not competing and take no notice.

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The late sun is casting deep shadows by the time you leave. There are tiny flickers of flame from campfires deep in the canyon. In the morning, you will travel on to Orange River and the next day cross into South Africa.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

On a Slow Boat in China

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I embarked at Guilin on the boat for Yangshou and went up on deck and leant on the rail at the front in the sun.

It was a slow boat and chugged sedately down the Li River, winding its way, in convoy with other boats, between the ranks of misty karsts. They stretched into the distance and faded into silhouette in shades of blue and grey and smudged with the sky at the horizon.

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Every karst with an arresting shape has a legend attached to it and a picturesque name. There is Elephant Trunk Hill and Pagoda Hill and Ox Gorge, where a peak is reckoned to be in the shape of an ox and other features to resemble lions, tigers, bats and dragons.

The word resemble does a lot of heavy lifting along the Li River. Yearning for Husband’s Return Hill, which is not such a mouthful in Chinese, has a rock which is said to resemble a man in ancient costume and another supposedly resembling a woman with a baby on her back who is gazing in his direction. A rock which is claimed to resemble a container of rice is also part of the legend. TL;DR: the couple only had rice to eat, gave it to an old lady, starved and turned to stone.

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Buffalo waded into the green-blue water and snacked on reeds. Cockle-pickers sifted through sand at the side of the water. Vendors rowed up to the boats on bamboo rafts with boxes of fruit and called out like market traders. Around towns, flotillas of boat taxis scudded out to meet passengers with tiny outboard motors screaming. Occasionally there was a river barge with a patina of rust and a roof made from corrugated sheets. Sometimes a fisherman with a cast net.

At Nine Horse Mural Hill, the cliff face looms a hundred metres above the river and the rock is exposed in piebald patches which are believed to take the shape of horses, sitting, standing, galloping, or nodding to drink from the water.

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You might notice one of the horses even if you knew nothing of the legend, three or four if you had heard it and were trying your best to see horses. The others take more imagination by orders of magnitude, and those who see them all would likely tell you that any given object you pointed out looked like a horse.

Along the river, there is Green Lotus Peak where a group of karsts is thought to look like a lotus flower and there is a two-storey pagoda first built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Beyond it is Schoolboy Hill, which is a karst said to bring to mind a schoolboy reading a book.

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It takes half a day to get to Yangshou on the slow boat, but I was in no kind of hurry. The sun was hot and the landscape pleasant and the sense of peace was welcome after the bustle of Chinese cities.

I ignored the announcement to go below decks as we neared Yangshou and had the deck to myself until we docked and I went down and out and along the jetty and onto the street to find my hostel.

© Richard Senior 2020

 

Cramming in Kyoto

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Rain slashed across the windows of the Shinkansen as it slid into Kyoto station. The seconds ticked past on the platform clock, 57, 58, 59, as it slowed and stopped and the minutes changed and the doors hissed open at the precise moment they were supposed to.

I got a bus to the ryokan, checked in and dropped off my bags. It was no weather for sightseeing, but I only had three days to spare in Kyoto if I were to fit in the rest of the things I had planned before I took the ferry to Korea. I scooped up my umbrella, or at least one of several 7-11 umbrellas in the holder, crossed over the road and soggily trudged round the Nishi Hongan-ji temple. I realised soon enough that I was just going through the motions.

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Nishiki Market was further up the street and had the considerable attraction of a roof. It is a long, narrow road which extends for five blocks and has about a hundred stores and stalls. There are bustling crowds and shouting vendors, banners and lanterns and signs.

Smoke issues from the yakitori stand, broth bubbles at the ramen stall and wagyu beef sizzles on the grill. Baby octopus is stuffed with quail’s eggs, skewered and candied. Tuna is cubed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and threaded on a stick like a lolly. Barrels are filled with pickled vegetables. Bottles of sake are arranged in ranks on tables.

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The sun had returned in the morning, the sky was blue, and I was out early on the bus to Arashiyama in the mountains at the edge of the city. The big draw there is the bamboo forest, whose stalks soar thirty feet in the air either side of the path, arch in on themselves and ration the sunlight. The bamboo crackles as it sways in the breeze, a sound like the first drops of heavy rain. Sunlight dazzles through gaps in the canopy.

Though it has big sights in abundance, Kyoto for me was not so much about them as the overall ambience. I idled along rural lanes, nosed into temples and could easily have made a day of it, hiking into the mountains, seeing the monkeys in the park, taking a boat out onto the river. But I was pushed for time and took the bus back into town and another to Southern Hagashiyama.

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I wandered up Chawan-zaka, or Teapot Lane, where some of the shops sell the kyō-ware pottery for which the city is known and from which the street took its name. At the end of it, the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex stretches up and straddles the hill. It is everything you imagine of a Japanese temple with Niōmon gates, halls, shrines, statues, bells, incense, a pagoda, and a view across the trees and the city to the mountains.

I headed down from the temple with half of Japan (the other half was walking uphill) into the picturesque streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, which are lined with old wooden shophouses. It is a tourist trap, ultimately, with its teahouses and gift shops but not spoiled by that. Even gift shops are fascinating in Japan. There are curiosities, too, like a shop which only sold maneki-neko cats and had them in every size, colour and material.

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The cherry blossom season was almost over. Petals were scattered like confetti after a wedding. They clogged streams; the wind made a blizzard of them and they piled up against the trunks of the trees. I found them in my hair and stuck to my clothes. But the gift shops were still selling cherry-blossom-themed parasols and fans. I had a cherry blossom ice cream in lieu of the lunch I skipped.

More narrow streets lined with wooden houses, more temples and gardens and the Maruymama-kōen park. Then, after a solid nine hours of charging about, back to the ryokan for green tea and a soak in the onsen bath in the basement.

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I started out next morning in the Gion geisha district when the sun was rising and the streets were all but deserted. Wooden merchants’ houses from the seventeenth century line the streets. Paper lanterns hang beside each door.  The neighbourhood slowly woke up. Tourists appeared, first in twos and threes then as a crowd. A black-suited salaryman hurried through on his way to work. Occasional geishas glided by on theirs.

I walked from Gion to Northern Higashiyama and along the Path of Philosophy which traces a canal at the foot of the mountains.  There are fine temples and gardens at either end and several along the way. Promenade gardens use the borrowed scenery technique which makes the surrounding countryside appear part of them. Koi carp swim under stone bridges in pond gardens. Zen gardens have raked gravel to represent the ocean and rocks to imitate mountains.

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There are craft shops and galleries and food carts, and signs with English words in no order which makes any sense. “Manner up” one demanded. “Please refrain from the entrance of the general one,” requested another. Though I say that while being unable to write a single character of Japanese.

In the evening, in search of dinner, I walked up Ponto-chō alley, and so did the crowds. It is just across the river from Gion and has the same wooden machiya houses. Many of them have been turned into izakayas* and red or white lanterns illuminate their facades.

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There was a British-themed bar called ‘the Sent James club,’ which I worked out after a moment was a mishearing of St James, as in the green space in London between the Mall and Birdcage Walk: Sent James a Spark. Elsewhere, there was British pub called the Pig & Whistle, which sold Belgian, Irish and Japanese beers, just like a real one might.

It was raining again when I left Kyoto but thankfully it did not follow me to Hiroshima.

© Richard Senior 2020

* Informal bar/restaurant

The Bo-Kaap: a Sense of Malays

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It was a century after the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as a way-station for its ships.

Jan de Waal, sexton at the Groote Kerk, got into property development. He assembled a site at the foot of Signal Hill and built cheap huurhuisjes (literally, ‘hire houses’) on it. Back then, in the 1760s, they called the neighbourhood Waalendorp. It has had several names since then, but the Bo-Kaap* is the one which stuck.

The VOC** imported slaves to Cape Town from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malacca (Malaysia), as well as India, Madagascar and East Africa. It sent imams there in exile for preaching against colonial rule. They were followed, later, by Muslim artisans from India and elsewhere. The community came to be known, regardless of origin, as Cape Malays.  They settled in the Bo-Kaap.

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They alone were permitted to live there under Apartheid. Other groups were forcibly  removed. Anyone is free to move there now, but that has brought controversies of its own. Activists protest about gentrification, of the traditional community being priced out, of the neighbourhood losing its character.

But, to the outsider at least, the Bo-Kaap seems barely to have changed in going on two hundred years. There might be streetlights and telephone wires, parked cars and satellite dishes. The major roads might be metalled. But its heritage is surprisingly intact.

The newest of the houses date back to the 1840s and are in a recognisably English style, flat-fronted, flat-roofed, with wooden sash windows. The oldest are built to a Dutch pattern. There are still some of Jan de Waal’s original huurhuisjes. Houses are interspersed with mosques and madrassas. Minarets sprout between the flat roofs.

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All are painted in bold colours, bright yellow, pastel pink, lime green, powder blue, lilac and ochre. Some accounts claim this as a celebration of freedom by emancipated slaves after 1834. Others suggest it is more recent: a cheerful riposte to Apartheid. Neither, though, would explain why houses of about the same period are painted in much the same way in Kentish Town, North London.

Occasional words of old Malay are still heard on the streets. The few businesses are small independents. There is Fatima Mini Market, Star Supply Store and the Rose Corner Café with “warm worsies sold here,”and “koeksisters available”. These are luminous pink local sausages and spiced doughnuts coated in desiccated coconut.

In 1946, two years before Apartheid, the Ahmed family set up in business as spice importers. They established the Atlas Trading Company which is still operating today. The shop, according to the old letters under the roofline, and above the rusting goods hoist, used to be Müller’s Reserve Store.

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Atlas were a few doors further down Wale Street when I was there in 2014. The freehand signwriting on the shutters and bricks declared their business. (They have a corporate logo now.) But you would have known if you had passed with your eyes shut what line they were in.

Inside there was a wooden unit with glass-fronted drawers. Behind it were shelves piled with spices in bags and boxes and packets. There were wooden hoppers with metal scoops laid across the lids. Nothing much seemed to have changed since 1946.

But at end of that block, on the corner with Rose Street, the Bo-Kaap segues into the world of tech stores, car showrooms and chain hotels as abruptly as if you had stepped off a film set.

© Richard Senior 2020

*Above the Cape in Afrikaans

**Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, i.e. the Dutch East India Company

At a Glacial Pace

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Three miles wide at the snout, nineteen miles long, filling the expanse between the mountains like builders’ foam; the powder blue ice, its hollows and crevices appearing backlit by the water within, juxtaposed with the deep green coniferous trees and the stark grey-black of the mountains, lightly dusted with snow and engulfed in low cloud at the margins; a wall of ice, striped with seams of deeper blue and black, rising an average of 240 foot above the surface of Largo Argentino, carved by nature into tens of thousands of tightly-packed columns ranking into the distance like an ancient army massed for battle.

The Perito Moreno glacier in the far South-West of Argentina feeds from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which straddles the border with Chile and is the last redoubt of an Ice Age which ended 11,000 years ago. It sprawls over an area more than four times bigger than Manhattan or about two and a half times the size of Barcelona.

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Boardwalks on multiple levels connected by stairs take visitors within a few hundred feet of the snout. Pops and cracks echo from around the glacier as if hunters were out on its surface shooting birds. Calved ice litters the waters around it.

Hours could easily be spent just gazing in awe at the glacier and listening to its cracks and creaks and bangs.  But I was not just there to look.

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Three years earlier in New Zealand, I arrived in Franz Josef too late to be able to hike on the glacier, as I had hoped, and had to make do with seeing it from the foot of the mountain on my way to the bus the next morning. Now, on a different continent but back in the Southern Hemisphere, the chance had come round again.

I took a boat across the lake to the shelter on the shore by the South Wall, where I was herded into a group of about 15 and had crampons attached to my boots. Two groups were out on the ice already, one about a third of the way up, the other about a third from the summit.

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In the middle of the briefing, there was a boom as if of a cannon and then a rumbling, shuttering sound like an office block succumbing to the wrecking ball. I turned and watched as a section of ice thirty, forty, fifty feet high detached from the glacier and slid vertically into the lake, rose again as pulverised fragments and caused a tumult in the water.

We started our ascent.  The crampons, impossible on land, were intuitive on the ice. We moved slowly, in file, behind the guide.  The route weaved between cracks and ponds and glacier mills, where surface meltwater spirals into a shaft in the ice. The ice glistened in the sun. We drank the coolest, freshest water straight from the glacier.

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Then, at the summit, the first of the guides produced whisky and glasses; the other harvested ice from the glacier with an axe. ¡Salud! We drank the whisky tempered with chunks of Perito Moreno, packed up and made our way back to the shelter.

© Richard Senior 2019

 

An Afternoon in Meknès

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Lunchtime was over in the Place el-Hedim. There was one man left at the clusters of tables outside the cafes, smoking and sipping mint tea. A black-and-white cat, with no food to beg now, bent in a yoga stretch under a chair and scrubbed at its fur with its tongue. Families promenaded, hand-in-hand, line-abreast. Redoubtable ladies in pink djellabas and hijabs sceptically fingered tagines at the traders’ stalls.

In the souks beyond the square, Berber rugs hung from the walls. Babouche slippers and hand-painted plates were arranged in colour-coordinated rows. There were piles of olives and mounds of spices, and dates and figs buzzed by wasps.

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Meknès is the lesser known of Morocco’s royal cities, by which I mean I had never heard of it until I planned this trip. You could spend all day in the Medina without seeing a traveller from anywhere in the OECD, and you are hardly ever hassled. There is no need for the benign protection racket of the official guides of cities like Fèz, who are not so much there to show you round as to stop you from being constantly, constantly bothered by the men who block your way, get in your face and angrily demand to sell you some unwanted assistance.

The old cigarette seller sat on a ledge with his friend in a clean, white kufi cap and an ill-fitting jacket over a sweatshirt in the heat of the mid-afternoon. The cigarettes were an American brand with a health warning in French and the pack of 200 was unopened. People strolled by in woollen djellabas with the hoods up, and sweatshirts with the hoods down, and white thobes and prayer caps, and denim jackets and baseball caps, and none of them bought cigarettes. Scooters snarled past. Grands taxis pulled up and disgorged their passengers across the road near the iconic gateway.

Bab el-Mansour boasts in its Arabic inscription, “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front”. All of that might be true, but the gate leads to nothing but an art exhibition. There is a door nearby into the old city.

Moullay Ismail made Meknès his capital on becoming sultan in 1672. He was a son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty which runs right through to the present-day king and his rule overlapped with Louis XIV of France and William and Mary in England.

Horse-drawn calèches stand ready to clop you round the walled city and in and out of keyhole gateways, stopping at the roofless remains of Ismail’s cavernous stables which once housed 12,000 horses but are home now to a few retiring tabbies, and the mausoleum of the sultan himself which is an opulence of zellij tiles, archways, pillars, fountains, carved stucco and worked metal.

In the late afternoon in the ville nouvelle built by the French, where the buildings are blocky and functional and the pavements are broken and the shops sell stationery and sportswear, fruit sellers congregated on the corner of the street and bantered with customers. There was a man with a pushcart filled with leafy oranges, two more with bananas in boxes which warned in Spanish that they needed to be handled with care and a father and son team selling grapes.

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An imam, spotless in head-to-toe white, stood out from a crowd in tracksuit bottoms and scuffed leather jackets. A man with dreadlocks and the backs of his shoes turned down shuffled to the bottom of Rue d’ Accra and back every half hour or so. There was some unpleasantness on Rue Antsirabe between cackling teenagers and a loudly protesting old man. They had stolen something he had leant outside a shop and run down the street with it. But a woman burst out of another shop and made them take it back.

The scene faded to darkness. The crowds thinned. The fruit sellers packed up and melted away. The shutters came down on the shops. The call to prayer floated across the roofs from the Mosque.

I had only planned to stay in Meknès as a base for Volubis and Moullay Idriss, a stopping off point between Fèz and Rabat as I travelled down the country, but it had been well worth a visit in its own right.

© Richard Senior 2019

Bab el-Mansour image: Chris Martin from Decatur, Georgia, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

What a Paine: Trekking in Patagonia

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The shuttle bus came at first light. The passengers who boarded at the stops up the hill were layered up in outdoor gear. Some carried tents and stoves. They mumbled buen’ dia’s and hellos on their way to their seats. At the terminal on the outskirts, where I had arrived from Argentina two days before, the bigger buses were taking on passengers for the Torres del Paine National Park.

It was a two-and-a-half hour journey, familiar from the minibus tour I had taken on the first day to try to get a feel for the park: mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, icebergs, sun, wind and rain in succession, condors and guanacos, the lesser known of the South American camelids.

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My plan was to hike the first leg of the W Circuit, the iconic five-day trek through the park. The owner of my hostel, who also did a brisk trade in hiring out camping gear, assured me it would be a long day’s trek. It did not really look it on the map. The round trip to Mirador Torres del Paine and back was a little under 15 miles, and I often walked that sort of distance then and it might take me a morning but not a full day. There was a shorter hike I could tag on at the end if I had time to spare.

The peaks soared up in the distance, dusted with snow, obscured by cloud. A desultory stream trickled over rocks at the side of the track. There were scrubby grasslands and hardy trees. To the right was the refugio where the W-trekkers spend their first night. A gaucho galloped a bay horse towards it.

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It was warm, now, in the morning sun and I peeled off two layers and stuffed them into my rucksack. About half an hour in, the path turned towards the mountains, became sinuous and steepened. I snarled up behind a tour group then managed to pass. There were conifers bent at an angle from the wind and pretty red alpine flowers.

In the first hour, according to my stats, I climbed from 400ft above sea to over 1000. By two hours, I was at 1500, by three at 2,300. There was a clatter of hooves behind me. I pressed myself to the side of the track as more gauchos passed with supplies for the refugios along the trail. I looked back at a lake far below and the snowy mountains beyond it.

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The trail cut diagonally along one side of a valley. The opposing peaks appeared coal black, except where they were streaked with snow. The snow lay thickly on more distant mountains and the winds swirled it round their peaks. The river bubbled over rocks at the foot of the valley.  The Patagonian wind howled all at once. The temperature plummeted. I wrestled first a softshell then a puffa jacket from my rucksack and they flapped like a sail ripped from the mast in a storm.

Up and over the ridge and the wind disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived and I pulled down zips, pushed up sleeves and tore off layers again. The trail led into the forest and I walked under coniferous trees. I crossed and re-crossed and walked along the river. The water was turquoise and clear and frothed as it eddied round rocks. The boulders beside it were bleached by the sun. The bridges were wooden and rickety. One crossing was just a broken ladder and a few planks of wood slung into the shallows.  I tramped through the grounds of a refugio with tents wherever there was space and travellers lounging on the benches outside the dorms.

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It was somewhere around lunchtime when I reached the Torres camp site and I stopped to eat the empanadas de pino from the supermarket in Puerto Natales. What I took to be a wolf emerged from the trees and trotted passed me and I jumped up in alarm and knocked over the bottle I had placed on the floor. The water dribbled over the dust as the animal loped through the campsite. No one else seemed to mind it and I think it was actually a grey fox, not a wolf. I picked up the bottle and salvaged what I could of the water and my pride.

The trail became markedly steeper from there and progress was slow as hikers in front picked their way over rocks, between boulders, relying increasingly on walking poles. There were repeated bottlenecks. Until then, my average pace had fluctuated between about 20 and 30 minutes a mile but now fell to almost 60. The frustration, though, fell away, at a little under 3000 ft above sea as I stood at the edge of the turquoise lake staring up at the three great shards of granite for which the park is named. Las Torres del Paine, ‘the Blue Towers’ in a mixture of Spanish and Tehuelche, the extinct native language of that part of Chilean Patagonia.

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It had taken four hours in all to reach the top and it would take another three and a half to get back to the refugio where I had seen the gaucho that morning. I had been naïve to imagine that I might have time to fit in more hiking that day. All that remained was to recline in the sun with a book and wait for the shuttle to Laguna Amarga, then pick up the bus back to Puerto Natales.

© Richard Senior 2019

Eating in Hiroshima

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It was lunchtime and the okonomiyaki shop was bustling but I got a seat at the counter. Everyone wants to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki, literally ‘what you want, grilled,’ originated in Osaka and is sold all over Japan nowadays; but Hiroshima has a version of its own, known to some as hiroshimayaki.

The chef smeared a circle of batter on the plancha grill in front of me, sprinkled on katsuobushi (flakes of dried tuna), then added several handfuls of chiffonaded* cabbage. To that, he added bean sprouts, sliced squid and a couple of thin slices of belly pork, followed by another drizzle of batter.

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He arranged yakisoba noodles on the plancha into the size and shape of the hiroshimayaki, then deftly flipped it onto them with a pair of spatulas. The towering pile of cabbage cooked down to something more manageable and he pressed it down some more with his spatula.

He cracked an egg onto the plancha, smeared it into a circle as he had the batter then flipped the hiroshimayaki again onto the cooking egg.  He flipped it a third time when the egg was cooked, drizzled mayonnaise and an unctuous, Worcestershire-sauce-based dressing over the top, buried it in sliced spring onions and sat an egg yolk on the top.

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It was very good, if very bad for me. I was thankful that I had mostly eaten fish, rice and lightly-cooked vegetables the rest of the time I had been in Japan. I paid, waddled out and caught the tram, where an old lady stood with a big cardboard box roped to her back and walloped the same three people with it every time she turned round to look out the window, but they were too polite to say anything.

Somewhere around 70% of Japanese oysters are produced in Hiroshima and they appear on menus all over the city. I had them twice in one day, five for lunch deep-fried in panko crumbs and served with a miso soup, a bowl of rice and a delicate salad made with sliced cucumber and leaves, then another five in the evening braised in a broth with udon noodles and sliced spring onions.

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I never got to try Hiroshima-style tsukemen, made with cold ramen noodles and served with a dipping sauce made with soy, red chillies and sesame seeds, but I had the same sauce with gyoza dumplings.

I ate in a traditional restaurant, where each diner, or group, had a room of their own and a sliding door portioned them off from the other diners. There was a low table and cushions to kneel on and a button to press when you were ready to order, which presumably sounded a buzzer at the bar and, at any rate, had the waitress knocking on the sliding door within seconds.

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I ate well in Hiroshima, but then I ate well all over Japan and only had one disappointing meal – in an izakaya in suburban Osaka – in the month I was there.

© Richard Senior 2016

*thinly sliced

Through the Inca Heartlands of Peru

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The minibus struggled up into the mountains overlooking Cuzco.

We passed the ruins of the Incan fortress of Sacsaywaman, whose stones the conquistadors looted to build the colonial town below, crashed over epic potholes and burst out into beautiful countryside. Horses, sheep and llamas grazed at the side of the road, tended by Quechua ladies in felt hats and voluminous skirts.

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A few switchback bends down the mountain road, we stopped to gaze over the Urubamba Valley, popularly known as El Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley, once the heartland of the Incan Empire. I said no gracias a few dozen times to the hawkers who held up alpaca jumpers and chullo hats, and water and sun cream, and CD’s of Andean music.

We stopped again at one of the weaving villages dotted about the mountains, and an embarrassed young woman demonstrated how to clean and dye alpaca wool, and older ladies worked a handloom. Their llamas and alpacas let me stroke their ears, but one of them spat when I tried to take its photo.

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Then on to Pisac, to climb Incan terraces which step up the mountain to the ruined fortress at the peak. The Incas dominated the western half of South America before the Spanish arrived, expanding from the Sacred Valley across Peru and into present-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They built complex structures which have withstood centuries of earthquakes and impress engineers to this day. Yet they never devised a system of notation; they invented the wheel but could see no use for it except in toys; and they were still sacrificing children around the time of the European Renaissance.

Back on the bus, driving through little towns laid out along dirt roads with single-storey adobe buildings, whitewashed and painted by hand with the name of a proprietor, the nature of his business and perhaps a familiar logo, like Coca Cola or Repsol Oil.

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I was intrigued by the names carefully signwritten across the walls of houses: the same ones on house after house, “Humberto” or “Miguel Morales” in huge red letters, shaded in blue. It turned out that they were local politicians.

I climbed more Incan terraces at Ollantaytambo, where the Incas fought the conquistadors and won. The terrraces are impressively straight, impressively uniform, and the enormous blocks are shaped and slotted together so snugly, without mortar, that you would not slide a feeler gauge between them. The Incas did all sorts of ingenious things to get the blocks to the site, including diverting a river. But they would have made things a great deal easier for themselves if they had seen the potential of the wheel.

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There is an ethereal air about the town below with its adobe walls and trapezoid doorways, despite the trucks which bully their way with blasts of their horns along lanes meant for carts. The Andean people have lived there continuously since before the Incas came, let alone the conquistadors.

In the morning, I took the train for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

© Richard Senior 2016